Kang excelling as MLB rookie; Will Park, other KBO stars follow?

The success Jung-ho Kang is having in his first year with the Pittsburgh Pirates might help more position players make the jump from the Korea Baseball Organization to Major League Baseball.

This past off-season, the Pirates put up the highest bid for the 28-year-old infielder, paying a $5 million posting fee to Kang’s Seoul-based ballclub, the Nexen Heroes, for the right to sign him. Kang agreed to a 4-year, $11 million deal with incentives based on playing time and a $5.5 million team option for a fifth year.

Taking a $16 million chance on player few people in North America had seen before this spring now looks like a smart move by the Pirates, who this season had the sixth-lowest Opening Day payroll in MLB. On the first day of August, Kang had a .299/.373/.453 with 7 home runs and 17 doubles in 86 games. Andrew McCutchen (147 wRC+) is the only Pirate who has hit better than Kang (135 wRC+) this year. Kang looks adequate defensively, though he’s probably more suited for third base (0.9 UZR) than shortstop (-0.4 UZR).

The Pirates paid more for Kang than the Milwaukee Brewers paid to obtain seven-time Nippon Professional Baseball all-star Nori Aoki (2-year, $2.5 million commitment, plus $2.5 million posting fee) from the Yakult Swallows before the 2012 season. But any of the 30 major-league teams could have had Kang for less money than it cost to sign a number of recent international free agents over the age of 26. In October of 2013, the Los Angeles Dodgers signed Cuban 3B/LF Alex Guerrero to a 4-year, $28 million pact. He’s 28 this year. Last August, the Boston Red Sox gave outfielder Rusney Castillo a 7-year, $72.5 million contract after he defected from Cuba. He turns 28 in September.

Interest in Kang when he was posted was tepid in part because of questions about whether the former Nexen shortstop, who hit 40 home runs and posted a 1.198 OPS in his last season in the KBO, would be over-matched at baseball’s highest level. KBO, which uses designated hitters, is offense-dominated — an  average of 10.5 runs are scored per game. Kang put up big numbers, slashing .356/.459/.739, but this was in a league where the average player hit .289/.365/.443. For comparison of the hitting environments, league average (excluding pitchers) in Major League Baseball last year was .255/.318/.393.

Trepidation over Kang’s ability to hit major-league pitching and stick as an everyday infielder may have led bigger-market clubs to stay out of the bidding or submit low offers. The Pirates outbid at least one division rival.

Those concerns about inflated hitting numbers are sure to follow the next KBO star with eye on the majors. But if Kang continues to play well here — he drove the eighth homer of his young major league career into the bleachers at Great American Ball Park as I was writing this Saturday night, by the way — more teams are likely to scout the Korean league for talent.

Already a handful are reportedly watching the Pirate rookie’s former teammate, first baseman Byung-ho Park, who hit 12 more homeruns in 2014 than Kang did. Park, along with former major leaguer Eric Thames, is a leading contender for KBO’s MVP award this year. He’s already won the award twice (2012 and ’13).

Park has big power numbers (.697 slugging and .350 ISO), but he’s also a strikeout machine, fanning 107 times in 424 trips to the plate (25.2% K%). He strikes out more than twice as often as he walks (49 BB, 11.6%). Still, he has 34 HR, 24 doubles and a .436 OBP, which is good enough to make him the second-best hitter (.447 wOBA) in KBO. [Side-note: Briefly a Blue Jay and Mariner, Thames (.474 wOBA) of the NC Dinos seems to be comfortable in South Korea, but maybe he should get a second look back home — his strikeouts are way down].

Below is a look at players (minimum 300 PA) hitting 30% above league average (130 wRC+) in KBO this season. Several of the top hitters in Korea are well into their 30s — including another member of the Heroes, CF Han-joon Yoo, and Hanwha Eagles 1B Tae-kyun Kim — and are not not prime candidates for MLB. You’ll want to pay attention to age, as well as position, if you’re looking for potential imports. Doosan Bears LF Hyun-soo Kim has the potential to be posted. Samsung Lions’ 1B Ja-wook Koo stands out among under-25 players.


Top hitters in KBO – Aug. 1, 2015

Player Team Pos Age PA HR AVG OBP SLG BB SO wOBA wRC+
Eric Thames NC Dinos 1B
28 386 30 .357 .474 .760 66 61   .474 199
Byung-Ho Park Nexen Heroes 1B
29 424 34 .347 .436 .697 49 107   .447 168
Tae-Kyun Kim Hanwha Eagles 1B
33 336 17 .340 .485 .621 68 51   .441 167
Han-Joon Yoo Nexen Heroes CF
34 379 18 .372 .446 .643 47 46   .436 160
Min-Ho Kang Lotte Giants C
29 317 25 .299 .416 .633 43 76   .417 150
Eui-Ji Yang Doosan Bears C
28 327 16 .330 .411 .556 24 42   .392 141
Ja-Wook Koo Samsung Lions 1B
22 346 9 .351 .419 .544 35 56   .398 139
Hyun-Soo Kim Doosan Bears LF
27 400 14 .327 .423 .512 54 38   .382 134
Seon-Hoon Jeong LG Twins 1B
35 327 8 .323 .432 .470 42 47   .380 134
Hyung-Woo Choi Samsung Lions LF
31 413 24 .315 .397 .575 45 65   .389 133
Sok-Min Park Samsung Lions 3B
30 359 16 .308 .415 .525 48 64   .387 132


More reading: